Barack Obama, according to today's Times, has studied FDR's first 100 days, seizing on the idea that Roosevelt had a "conversation with the American public." This is both smart and foreseeable—but he needs to recognize his and the strategy's limitations. To understand why, ask yourself how often FDR gave his famed fireside chats. The answer, which I'll give below, may surprise you.
It's smart because of the obvious historical parallels—a Democratic president taking office at a time of economic crisis and accompanying national psychological distress. It's foreseeable because Obama's speech-giving skill is his greatest asset.
But there are a few things he and we should keep in mind. The president-elect is well known for his ability to deliver a speech to a large crowd with mesmerizing power. The extent to which he can master the more informal style FDR invented in his fireside chats, an ability to emotionally connect with individuals, will tell a lot about how much Obama is able to match Roosevelt.
More important is the frequency with which the president-elect plans to have his conversation with the American people. Obama plans, according to the Times , to "pack his schedule with interviews, speeches, news conferences and limited travel to try to rally public support behind the [stimulus] effort." This is smart given the urgency of the economic situation.
But let's come back to FDR's fireside chats. They are rightly famous, but how often did he give them? Weekly? Monthly? The answer is that he never gave more than four fireside chats in any one year.
FDR, like his successors who have the keenest grasp of how to use the bully pulpit, understood its power but also its limitations. You can go to that well only so often before a presidential appearance or address stops being an Event and just blends into the already overloaded television-infotainment landscape.